Michaelmas and Hallowe’en? October 19, 2017

Autumn comes in a blaze of scarlet, gold and the purple of Michaelmas daisies. What would Regency England do to mark the change of the seasons?

Old Michaelmas Day, October 10th on the Gregorian calendar, was one of the quarter days of the English year. It marked the last day of harvest and the end of the productive season. It was a time when debts came due, servants were hired and land changed hands. Michaelmas was also known as Goose Day. To this day Goose Fairs are held in Nottingham.

But what about turkey – you may well ask. Not in this time period. Goose was the bird for feasting. Eating goose at Michaelmas guaranteed luck and prosperity in the coming year. If a tenant farmer hoped to get an extension on his rent, the gift of a fat goose might do the trick.

Hallowe’en had its roots in the Celtic festival of Samhain which, like Michaelmas, was linked to summer’s end and the start of winter. Blazing bonfires, feasting, drinking and dancing were part of the celebrations. In an attempt to convert the Celts to Christianity several Catholic popes decided to merge Celtic celebrations with existing Christian holidays. Thus November 1st became the Christian Feast of All Saints and All Hallows’ Eve was born. By the sixteenth century the word Hallowe’en was in common usage especially in Scotland.

It was a time when the living honored and prayed for the dead but pagan beliefs and superstitions were added. In rural areas the darkness of Hallowe’en was considered a very dangerous time because it was believed evil spirits as well as the dead, with unfinished business, could walk again. Lighted Jack o’lanterns were carried to scare away supernatural beings but they were carved from turnips or mangelwurzels, a type of beet. The name Jack o’lantern came from the Irish legend of Shifty Jack, who was so evil that even hell wouldn’t take him and he was doomed to eternal wandering.

Then on November the 5th, 1605 Guy Fawkes attempted to blow up the English house of parliament by filling the basement with gunpowder. His plot was foiled but it became the custom to commemorate Guy Fawkes Day by lighting bonfires in every town and village – very much like the bonfires of Celtic Samhain except that now they were a Protestant celebration. I cannot fathom why they named the day after him. After all he was the culprit.

Hallowe’en was pretty well ignored in Regency England but in the Celtic areas of Scotland, Wales, the Isle of Man and Ireland it would be a night of bonfires and fortune-telling, mostly focused on courting games. One of the most common was the nut-crack. The heroine tossed several nuts into the fire with the names of her suitors scratched on them. The one which burned the longest and brightest would be the most true to her. A different version would have a couple each toss one nut into the fire and see if they burned together or jumped away from each other.

Another popular game was bobbing for apples. A blind-folded player would try to bite an apple floating in a tub of water. The initials carved into the apple would indicate a future spouse. Reading apple parings was another divining method. A woman would peel an apple keeping the paring in one long coil, then she would toss it over her left shoulder. When it landed on the ground she would inspected to see what initial it made – giving a clue to the name of her sweetheart.

An autumn dinner party in the Regency would likely include a roast goose and a variety of ginger desserts which were considered Michaelmas treats. And then on Hallowe’en, if you lived near the Scottish border or other traditionally Celtic areas, the courting games would begin by the fireside.

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